What an audacious, reckless, foolish, improbable, brilliant, and beautiful thing this American experiment is. As if one needed reminding (and maybe we did), the inauguration day events, very much including the Parade Across America and the evening’s Celebrating America, made it abundantly clear that nowhere else on the planet, now or in history, has something this radical been attempted. Nowhere else could the great dream of Democracy be celebrated as it can be here.
The day exposed the great MAGA lie, that America’s greatness lay somewhere in the past, and we needed to return. The day revealed the simplistic fallacy of those who complain that "liberals" are always apologizing for America. They fail to grasp the great paradox -- that America, in its aspirations, is great, and we can humbly take pride and joy in that, even as we acknowledge our many failings, even as we are ever rededicated to our "unfinished work". It is the greatness of our aspirations, and our Sisyphian determination to live up to them, that makes us a symbol for the world and that must be the mirror that we use to guide us. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Nobel laureate Dylan echoes Whitman saying, “I contain multitudes.” On Inauguration Day, multitudinous America was very much the evidence of the day.
Lynn and I have been reviewing the transcript of our MLA oral history and feeling quite proud of our professional accomplishments. We are quite aware, as well, of our failings, of all the times we didn’t do as well as we should have. We mentally play the do-overs. I’d never say, “I did the best I could,” if I thought that meant I didn’t think I could have done better. I know too well the times that I could have, should have. But just as my pride in my accomplishments doesn’t absolve me from taking responsibility for my failures, neither does my acknowledgment of those failures diminish the good that I managed to get done. At the core of Trump’s pathetically shriveled sense of self was his terror of ever admitting mistakes or showing any weakness. He transferred that insecurity to his MAGA mythology and managed to get millions to go along with it. But I have no trouble carrying the complexity. I happily contradict myself. I contain multitudes, too.
These last few weeks I’ve been reading my way through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (with a copy of Sikoryak’s Constitution Illustrated near to hand for reference). Eerie to be reading Tocqueville’s explication of the relative powers of the legislature, the President, and the judiciary on those late December days when the tensions among those powers made it feel as if the whole thing might blow apart. Frightening to be reading Tocqueville’s analysis of how democratic excess can lead to despotism as readily as to equality on the days when the mob attempted to stop American democracy once and for all. America’s failure to live up to what he hoped for wouldn’t surprise him. He was very clear about the dangers that beset democracy from all sides. He was hopeful that we could avoid them, but he knew it was far from a sure thing. The Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the emergence of the US as a mega superpower, the bitterness of the Civil Rights movement, the nearly fatal partisanship of the Trump years – all of this could be foreseen in his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment. He would have been saddened by our failures, but not surprised.
But he would have been astounded by the Parade Across America. He believed that the shared Anglo heritage of the colonists, and the mores they derived from that heritage, were an essential part of what might hold America together. The Indians, he believed, were destined to die out within a few decades at most. And the Black and White races would never be able to live together (although he believed in the positive impact of interracial marriage). The best thing would be to enable the Blacks to move to the newly established African country of Liberia, where they could take their American ideals with them and live in peace, but that was impractical. Eventually the evil of slavery would tear the South apart.
And yet, there on our screens, were dozens of Indigenous, dancing in all their finery; and Pacific Islanders chanting, and Puerto Ricans singing and dancing, and small town residents and big city dwellers celebrating the many ways they reach out to help their neighbors. There was hip-hop and grunge and country and a beatific Yo-Yo Ma. There was Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting Heaney's magnificent "The Cure At Troy". And there was Amanda Gorman:
In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
And there was Kamala Harris, whose inauguration was an American hat trick of the finest kind, being sworn in as the Vice-President of the United States.
Tocqueville didn't think such a thing was possible. No idea could possibly be strong enough to take all these people, coming from all over the world, determined to preserve all their own beloved customs and traditions, each so exotic and unfamiliar, and bind them together in the belief that they are all Americans. Even for all his devotion to the power of liberty and equality and democracy, Tocqueville wouldn’t have imagined that this America could come to be. Even he didn’t know how powerful that American idea, bringing to life the land of hope and dreams, would turn out to be. And yet, here we are.
Biden didn’t say, in his plea for unity, that all of us would come together. His idealism is tempered with a large dose of pragmatism. What he did say is that in our most dire moments “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward and we can do that now.” Enough of us. Think about that. Enough of us, to carry all of us. Even those who don’t agree with us, who are fearful, and distrustful, and resentful. Millions of Americans will spend the next four years raging about how Biden is destroying America. Most of them won’t be persuaded otherwise.
That’s okay. Enough of us will persevere. Biden said, “The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.” But as I wept my way through the catharsis of the day, I was reminded again and again of how powerful the American idea is. Once again the American experiment has been tested. Once again we are called upon to give the full measure of devotion. Once again I'm willing to believe.